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Archive for July, 2018

Honing the Craft

Knife sharpeningAs an educator and speaker I have often used pictures and images to underscore comparisons of education to other professions as a very effective tool to demonstrate the great need education has as a system to change. The most effective comparison was to show pictures of an operating room in the 19th century followed by a picture of a 21st century operating room. Step two is simple: Make the same visual comparison using pictures of a classroom. The difference in evolution of each set of pictures is a dramatic comparison. The early operating room was sparse, dark, and obviously not so sterile. The modern OR is packed with medical technology, brightly lighted, and an obvious sterile environment. The classroom pictures from early on had a teacher standing at the front of the room with a chalkboard behind and facing rows of students. The modern pic had a teacher standing at the front of the room with a whiteboard behind and facing rows of students.

Of course not every classroom in America is that stark, but I would venture to guess that description is probably closer to an accurate portrayal of a majority of classrooms. What should concern us even more than the environment of the classroom is the preparation, the mindset and the relevance of that educator standing in the room.

Of course we must assume that hospitals would not invest in medical technology if it were not being successfully applied to what doctors are supposed to be doing with it. Doctors are constantly being trained on the latest tech, and the newest drugs, and the latest methodology in their areas of expertise in their profession. Relevant knowledge to apply the proper methods and strategies for healthcare is essential. As a society we would not expect less of our medical profession. After all we depend on those doctors to do their jobs to the best of their ability to provide us with the best care possible and we won’t settle for less.

As an observer of student teachers, I visited many classrooms in many different schools giving me a unique perspective. In addition to observing my student teachers, I also made observations on the system of education. I was always astounded to see four computers collecting dust in the back or on the side of the room. It was however, a great opportunity to discuss education with many practicing educators. I found most of these educators wanting to be effective influencers on their students. They wanted to make a difference in the lives of their kids. They showed willingness and an openness to learn in order to evolve as educators. How are the motivations and concerns of these teachers different from those of our doctors? What are the differences in how doctors and teachers hone their craft?

The two greatest concerns we have in life are our kids and our health. We put our health in the hands of doctors and expect and pay for them to be not only educated enough to obtain a license in order to practice, but to pursue a continual path to maintain relevance in order to provide the best and latest procedures and methodologies to protect us. We show respect and teach them as adult professionals. They are provided assistants, technicians, mentors and mentees to feed into and perpetuate their support system. They develop as professionals on a continual basis.

We put our kids in the hands of educators and expect that they are educated enough to meet state standards while paying the most local taxes will afford. We support their relevance by providing sporadic training days once or twice a year. We have few standards to guide the education of educators and they vary state-by-state and district-by-district. We depend on pedagogy, the methods in teaching children, to teach adult learners about their profession. We require seat time in classes as the quality check on PD. The list goes on. There are many aspects of professional development that create a culture that does not support best practices for professional development.

Our kids are our most important asset and most valuable treasure. Why would we settle to place them in the hands of educators who could be better educated and more relevant on a continual basis if we were to prioritize the education of our educators. Most teachers are ready and willing to work on their craft, but they lack the thoughtful sources to do so.

There is no single solution that will fix our education system, because there is no single problem that is holding it back. It is a complex problem. There is however one thing that will most effectively and efficiently address most of the necessary changes we need. If we prioritize and rethink the way we allow and provide professional development for educators, we can enable them to continually hone their practice in their profession.

If we are to better educate our kids, we need first to better educate their educators.

 

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Several decades ago I read an article that I believe was in Time Magazine on the most difficult jobs in America. The article defined a difficult job based on the number of impactful decisions a person had to make in a day. Listed, as one of the most difficult jobs, was that of an eighth grade English teacher. I was surprised to read that, but I was in full agreement, since I was at the time an eighth grade English teacher. A decision is made by considering the information available and making a choice, or taking a course of action. The best decisions can be made when the best and most complete information is available.

A glaring obstacle to change and hopefully improvement in our education system, which needs to be addressed, is that educators don’t always know what they don’t know, but make decisions with the information they have. Making decisions with limited information often limits the potential of progress.

If there is one fact that can be established as a result of the use of technology it is that technology promotes and accelerates innovation and change. The rate of change in our computer-driven society is happening at a pace never seen before in history. These changes affect almost every aspect of our lives. Keeping up with these changes has become a challenge for everyone. We can argue whether this change is good or bad, but the fact is that this change is real and ongoing, like it or not. Making decisions becomes more difficult because the information used to make the decision might be different within a year. This has been underscored time and time again when we consider industries like: typewriters, telephones, Kodachrome film, cassettes, record albums and the list goes on.

Teaching deals with information in all of its forms. Teaching kids how to curate, analyze, critically think, collaborate, communicate and ultimately create information is the goal of education. We are also trying to instill a love of learning and flexibility to change in order to promote life long learning in every student. In order to do that effectively and efficiently is difficult enough, but in today’s world we need to do that with as much relevance as possible. We need to be relevant today because our kids will be living in a world that will be more advanced than we are now as a result the effect of technological influences for change.

As a teacher of the 70’s I can say that it was certainly easier back then. Things were more rigid and more reliable. Change was slow. Teachers could teach the same curriculum year after year and be considered to be a dependable educator. This is not what we want for our kids today, but for the most part, this has changed, or at least we would like to think so.

If we want our educators to make the best decisions for our kids, we need to insist that they consider the best and most complete information available. We need to make decisions that are based on relevant information. Relevance has become a component of education in a system that is so affected by rapid change, a difficult task indeed.

Teachers may no longer earn a degree and expect that degree to carry them through a 30-40 year career without some additional form of training or education to retain their relevance. Does our present system promote or even allow for this? Do districts provide relevant professional development for their educators? Are the decision-makers, who are deciding on relevant PD, relevant themselves? If teachers are to make their own choices on PD, are they making the right choices? Do they select PD choices that are needed, but might be uncomfortable to do? Are they up to date on what areas in education are leading edge ideas? Are they aware of all of the choices available to them?

If we all agree that Professional Development should be prioritized, ongoing, and supported with time and money, than let us consider what PD we actually have. Relevance is a key factor in making PD decisions. A big problem with our current system may be that decision makers who need to make relevant decisions are themselves irrelevant. How can educators make decisions on the best PD to enrich them, when they are unaware of the PD strands that are current or even available?

It is a problem when we reach a point where educators don’t know what they don’t know.

Adult learning, collaboration, and social media should all be components of our Professional Development. Time for collaboration, common planning periods, and reflection time should be included in our Professional Development. Having staff members in some form supporting or coaching teachers developing and adopting new methodology should be included in our Professional Development. Moving from the 20th century teacher-centered methodology and mindset to a more student-centered 21st century approach should be included in our Professional Development. Supporting educators to believe they can expand and change with a supportive school culture should be included in our Professional Development. The idea that we are all life long learners becoming a belief and not just an alliterate phrase should be included in our Professional Development.

If we are to better educate our kids, we must first better educate their educators.

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I recently returned from my yearly trek to ISTE, one of the largest education technology conferences to be held annually. This year better than 22 thousand educators were in attendance in Chicago for three days. While there I spoke to many educators about their experiences and noted some common threads in their responses. Of course this was very unscientific, but for me some things were painfully obvious.

The ‘Wow factor” was common to many of their comments. I understand that the tech companies tend to highlight their latest bells and whistles for education conferences, but many of these educators were being impressed with the bells and whistles of years gone by. I understand that teacher attendance at conferences is usually not budgeted for in school budgets, so many educators do not usually, or should I say rarely attend National conferences, but there are other methods of maintaining relevance as a professional educator. Those educators who attended ISTE on their own dime should be commended. Of course this should not be the sole responsibility of each educator, but rather a shared responsibility with the school district. This unfortunately is not something that a great many districts even consider.

Of course there was another common comment that was all too often given up by educators: “ Oh, my district could never afford this technology stuff”, or other similar comments in regard to funding tech initiatives. How we fund our education is in large part the greatest factor to what each district has to offer. Obviously this is now a leading issue of many states being voiced and exposed by statewide, educator-supported demonstrations. Hopefully, some states will pay attention to the very people who should be making education decisions.

The third observation that I made was the idea that almost all education and tech conferences support the separation of tech and education. To me this is the greatest deterrent to changing how we view education. We no longer have a choice as educators to include technology in how we approach learning. Our students will be expected to utilize tech in almost every aspect of their professional careers and at almost every level, even for jobs we don’t know yet exist. The majority of their future positions may not even yet exist, but I am confident that technology will be a good part of those as well.

Of course a good teacher doesn’t need technology to teach. A good teacher can be effective with a stick used to scribble on a dirt floor. That however would only impart knowledge to their students. How those students would then curate, collaborate, and communicate that information to create, will require the use of technology provided by their computer-driven society in which they must live, survive and hopefully thrive. Of course some will go off to live in tech-free communes somewhere in the backwoods of America, but that will never be the majority.

Is our education system, as it stands today, meeting the needs of all of our kids? That is a question that has no clear answer. If you point to statistics using learning within schools providing access to tech, I would say the numbers are a little squishy. It will be pointed out that some school has x number of computers and it is only doing marginally better than another school with far less tech. My questions would be what is the teaching culture like? What is the teacher training like? What is the preparation and planning time like? What is the administrative support like?

There is a big difference in providing tech to a teacher who is prepared and enthusiastic for its use, then to a teacher who doesn’t like tech, is uncomfortable using it and is more comfortable with a 20th century approach to education. Just measuring the boxes put in the classroom is not an effective measurement of the impact of technology.

If we are ever to change the education system that we have in place now, we need to first change the culture of education. We need to educate educators regularly to maintain relevance. Technology and innovation both foster rapid change. If we are not educating educators accordingly, they will lose relevance. We need to promote the idea of life long learning, not just for our kids, but for out adults as well. That is the world that we now live in. Change and the ability to adjust to it is a key to learning and maintaining relevance.

Technology and education are no longer separate entities. They are intertwined because of where and how we live and will continue to live going forward. Education will use technology as a tool for curation, communication, collaboration, and what we always strive to accomplish, creation. The skills preparation in school will then reflect the needs of the community. In order for our students to understand this, we need to get our teachers and their administrators to get it first. That is the best way to prioritize and budget for effective and efficient ways to approach both content and skills development for our kids. All of this will require a change in the way we approach professional development. We need a nationwide, holistic approach, rather than the scattered patchwork approach, varying from district to district that we have supported for centuries and continue to support. If we are to better educate our kids, we first need to better educate their educators.

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